The 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) wrapped up its consideration of resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on July 13, with mixed results due largely to the House of Bishops’ unwillingness to take many of the bolder steps urged by the House of Deputies.
Of the 15 resolutions submitted on Israel-Palestine going into General Convention, only six passed both houses, though the successful resolutions still touch on a range of issues, including the plight of Palestinian children, the status of Jerusalem, the disproportionate use of lethal force on both sides and ways TEC can press for peace through its investment decisions.
Bishops and deputies, even those arguing for a tougher stance against the conditions of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, took pains to affirm Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, citing longstanding church policy toward the region. And while the bishops rejected the most controversial resolution, D019, saying it amounted to a dangerous “divestment” from Israel, General Convention’s deliberations over the past week have highlighted what many see as an escalating humanitarian crisis in the region.
“We need to really stand with Palestinians at this point,” Virginia Bishop Associate Robert Ihloff said in the morning session on the final day of General Convention. “It is not an even playing field.”
Ihloff was speaking in favor of Resolution C038, which calls on Israel to safeguard the rights of Palestinian children in Israel’s military detention system. Joining the House of Deputies, the bishops passed C038 in a rather one-sided voice vote. Related resolutions were approved earlier in the week by both houses with relatively little objection: B021, supporting the resumption of humanitarian aid to Palestinians; B003, regarding the status of Jerusalem as shared Holy City; and D018, reflecting on the deterioration of negotiations toward a two-state solution.
Even allowing debate on D019 in the House of Deputies was seen as progress over three years ago, when a similar measure at General Convention was defeated by the bishops before it got to the deputies’ calendar.
D019 sought to end what proponents say is the church’s financial complicity in the Israeli occupation through its investments in companies that profit from human rights abuses there. That resolution was taken up as a special order of business July 9 through an expedited process recommended by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies. That process also established the House of Deputies as the house of initial action for all Israel-Palestine resolutions.
Resolution D019 would have asked Executive Council, based on 70 years of church policy toward the Middle East conflict, to research and develop a plan by 2019 for a “human rights investment screen” for church investments in the region. The deputies voted 74 percent in favor, but the bishops defeated the resolution July 11, with 62 percent voting no.
After that vote, Sarah Lawton, deputy from the Diocese of California and chair of the Social Justice and International Policy Committee, said she was disappointed by the bishops’ decision to reject D019 but still saw opportunities for General Convention to raise its voice on the conflict through the other resolutions.
“Given how things are getting so much worse and dire, both the [Israeli] settlements and the human rights issues, I think it would be useful to understand how things are shifting and also the role of the U.S. government,” Lawton told Episcopal News Service on July 11. “I wish the bishops would have more time to reflect on how that situation is changing there.”
The bishops on July 13 joined the deputies in speaking out on some of those issues, even passing Resolution B016, which echoes D019 in its use of the phrase “human rights investment screen.” Unlike D019, Resolution B016 includes no timeline for action by Executive Council or any reference to church complicity in the occupation, though it ultimately could result in the church pulling money out of companies that do business there.
Bishop Dan Edwards of Nevada spoke in favor of B016 before the vote, saying it balances targeted divestment from companies when appropriate with shareholder activism when that might produce greater results.
“There is a time to disinvest, and there is a time to do shareholder activism,” Edwards said. “This resolution provides for both of those. To do one without the other is to limp badly.”
The nuance in the language in B016 left its passage open to starkly different interpretations from groups on both sides of the issue. The American Jewish Committee released a statement July 13 applauding the church’s “rejection of Israel divestment,” while Friends of Sabeel North America tweeted, “The Episcopal Church voted today to divest.” Episcopal Peace Fellowship expressed surprise but joined in praising the vote.
The voice vote on B016 was close enough that Curry requested a show of hands to confirm it had passed. The bishops were far less divided on the other Israel-Palestine resolutions. While support was nearly unanimous for the resolution regarding Palestinian children, the bishops’ response to D038, raising civil rights concerns, and D039, describing Israel as an “apartheid” state, was nearly united in opposition.
“Israel is not an apartheid state,” said retired Bishop Ed Little of Diocese of Northern Indiana, a consistent voice against the Israeli-Palestinian resolutions.
Use of that word alone may have been enough to defeat D039, though some of the bishops agreed that an unjust system of segregation and discrimination exists in Israel. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Anglican leader who was a pivotal figure in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, also spoke in favor of taking a tougher stance toward Israel in a statement he released before General Convention with former House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and Patti Browning, widow of former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning.
“I speak from a place of deep and profound respect for Archbishop Tutu,” Los Angeles Bishop John Taylor began his remarks on D039, but he disagreed that the “powerful word” chosen by the resolution was appropriate – at least not yet.
“Episcopalians are famous for taking words seriously. I would support this resolution without the word ‘apartheid,’” he said. “I fear that we may need the word back in another more appropriate context.”
Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton rose not only to speak against D039 but also to question why General Convention had spent so much time on Israel-Palestine. He said he supported and voted for some of the measures but asked, “Why the fixation on Israel?”
“I’m disturbed by the number of resolutions brought forward about this conflict, as if we here can suggest that we actually know what the problems are,” he said. “There’s a sense of piling on here in these resolutions.”
The apartheid resolution was defeated easily, as was D038, on civil rights in Israel, after a concern was raised about some of the later resolution’s supporting material.
General Convention has voted in support of Middle East peace for decades, though Israel-Palestine has become one of the thorniest topics at recent General Conventions, particularly the question of divestment.
The expedited process at this year’s General Convention was intended to ensure full, open and productive discussion of the issues, and that openness was on display July 6 at the hearing on the resolutions. Nearly 50 people testified, most of them in favour of passage.
After D019’s defeat, Lawton suggested there remained a disparity between the deputies and bishops in time spent deliberating on that and other resolutions. Some bishops expressed their own reservations about the process, saying they would have welcomed more substantive discussions before voting on what all agreed were complex issues.
Bishop Suffragan Jeff Fisher of Texas, who is on the board of Episcopal Peace Fellowship, offered that organization’s participation if the bishops wished to pursue such conversations formally. The topic is expected to be on the agenda when the House of Bishops meets next, in March.